Iraq and a Hard Place: From the Archives

This piece was originally published in my LiveJournal on Feb. 10th, 2004. The timeline’s a little off, but ten years later, it’s not far from the target.

David Brooks has another dismal column in the New York Times today. But it ends on a hook that gives me a chance to go out on a limb.

Brooks does a poor-man’s variant on a Bill Safire device, that of re-writing someone’s speech, or trying to get inside their thoughts. I kind of understand why Safire likes this device, as he’s a former speechwriter. If Brooks was a former novelist it might make a bit more sense. But as it is…

So the re-write in question is of Mr. Bush’s tongue-tied to the point of stream-of-consciousness interview with Tim Russert on Meet the Press. Here’s Brooks’ last paragraph, speaking as Bush:

“I could lose this election. I don’t know whether the American people are with me or not. But I know our hair-trigger reputation has jolted dictators in Libya, North Korea and elsewhere. I know that if in 20 years Iraq is free and the Arab world is progressing toward normalcy, no one will doubt that I did the right thing.”

Oh, yeah. God knows Mr. Bush’s behavior has caused a jolt in behavior from North Korea. So much so that history may well write, “George W. Bush — Father of the North Korean Bomb”.

But, as readers of this LJ know, I had a success rate of 63% when I made 8 predictions regarding the war in Iraq. The big score there: I predicted we would never find any WMD, because the Administration’s behavior makes it clear that not even they believe the weapons existed.

So, here’s that limb, complete with saw: Iraq will not be free in 20 months, let alone 20 years. 20 months would be… October 2005. Yeah, that sounds safe.

By October 2005, there will be one of four outcomes in Iraq:

* A weak but basically authoritarian regime is still in power, propped up by US troops. (The current status quo.)

* US troops are out, and there’s an Islamic theocracy. (This is the “democratic” option, and why, rhetoric to the contrary, we’re butt-scared about democracy breaking out in Iraq.)

* US troops are out, and there’s another Hussein/Mubarak/Somoza/arap Moi/Marcos/Diem/Musharraf mostly-“friendly” dictator installed.

* US troops are out, and Iraq has broken up into three countries — Kurdistan, “Iraq” (the Sunni enclave), and… Let’s call it Basrastan (the Shi’ite enclave). Basrastan would be an Islamic theocracy (again). Kurdistan may or may not be at war with Turkey. “Iraq” would have no oil, probably be secular, and possibly authoritarian again.

I’ll tell you the truth — I’m not sure which one is the “best” scenario here. But it’s where we’re going, as of this writing.

Now, all things are provisional, pending better data. It’s possible that somehow the Administration will start treating the situation with finesse and competence, and actually figure out a way to rebuild Iraq so that the Iraqis like and cooperate with us. To put John Kerry’s spin on it, they might stop fucking up.

What I see as more likely, though, is another Vietnam… But not the way that’s usually meant. I think what will happen is that regardless of the final outcome, we have so alienated the Iraqi people that some few will immigrate to the US and become incredibly prosperous, while the remainder stay at home and refuse to have anything to do with us for at least 20 years. Just like Vietnam. Or Iran. In fact, I think the US withdrawal from Iraq, if it happens before the election like so many seem to think it will, will look spookily like the withdrawal from Vietnam, people clinging to helicopters and all.

The Emperor Sans Chemise

From my comments to this post at The American Interest:

“President Obama views Putin as a leader who “was operating from a position of weakness.” This is right, but only if you take the long view: This type of regime is destined to fall eventually, but for the time being Putin has an 82 percent approval rating; he hardly looks or feels weak.”

No, Russia, and Poutine (I use the French spelling, because it more closely matches the Russian pronunciation) are incredibly, tactically weak.

Why did Poutine take Crimea? Because he wanted to protect the Black Sea “Fleet,” and thought it was a valuable enough asset to cause a fuss over. Have you looked at the Black Sea “Fleet”? It’s about the size of a single US Navy carrier group – minus the carrier, of course. Mark Galeotti has said he thinks it could lose a fight against the Italians. The fact that Poutine invaded another country to be certain to hold on to such an asset that is both so valuable to him he doesn’t feel he can afford to lose it, yet so weak it has no real tactical value, says volumes. It says his other assets are even worse.

The Russians fought Chechnya — and it took years to get to a standoff. The Russians fought a virtually disarmed Georgia — and it still took a week. And that’s before we talk about Afghanistan, which provides a fine illustration in the difference between withdrawing (what the US is doing), and retreating (which the USSR was forced to do, leaving tons of matériel behind).

Poutine is an Emperor without any clothes. And the photographs to match.


Here in Seattle, there is much talk about the recent City Council vote to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour.

That’s mostly a local issue, but one aspect has broader implications. Many franchisees of international brands – McDonald’s, Subway, Starbucks, etc. – are protesting they’re being treated as parts of their larger brands, rather than the small family businesses they see themselves to be.

This strikes me as wanting to have it both ways. They want the customer to think they’re part of the larger brand, even as they want the local authorities to treat them as the oppressed local little guys. Being largely an advocate for the customer, I find this curiously deceptive.

If what’s genuinely wanted is this mix of international brand and local affinity, perhaps renaming their businesses is in order. “Bob Smith’s McDonald’s,” “Gurinder Singh’s Starbucks,” and the like.

Don’t try to sell the big brand to the customer, and the small identity to the law. If you want both, do both.

The Russians Are Coming!

Daniel Drezner has a post at Foreign Policy about the (supposedly) recently discovered Russian spy ring.

He’s less than impressed.

Here’s what I just posted in a comment to him (quotes from his post are in italics):


“(I)s there anything that the Russians gathered from this enterprise that a well-trained analyst couldn’t have picked up by trolling the interwebs?”

Probably not, but that may well be the point.

That is, it’s one thing to find information on the interwebs. It’s another thing entirely to verify it.

In fact, given that 80-90% of all intel gathered is “open source intelligence” (ie, gathered from non-secret sources), I think one purpose of this group may have been to establish a control set against the images in the press and in entertainment media. The Russians may have been asking, “How real are those images?” and trying to set up “everyday” people to compare them against.

Come to think of it, that might not be so bad a project for us.

“Why were the arrests made now?”

That’s a real puzzler, as is any prosecution against spies. Standard practice is, once you ID a spy, you feed them disinformation to then pass along to their controllers. One of the few rationales I can think of (pay attention, this might be tricky):

* We have a source in Russia
* Who told us they have a source in the US
* Who’s told them we’ve discovered this ring
* So we had to blow the ring to protect our source in Russia, as prosecution is what we’d be “expected” to do.

“(T)his sounds like a low-rent, more boring version of that movie.”

* Movies are intended to look expensive — life isn’t
* Movies are intended to not be boring — life isn’t

You’re basically saying that since reality doesn’t match a movie plot scenario (see Schneier), it’s reality that must be wrong. Er, ah, no. All this points out is how crappy movie plots are vis-à-vis reality. It also points out how dangerous movie plots are when we let them set expectations as to what intel “really” is. (Which is why 24 has probably done more damage to our intel enterprise than any other single thing in the most recent ten years.)

If you wanted to make as realistic a TV series about intel as possible, it’d probably resemble Dilbert or The Thick of It more than anything else. Or it would be The Sandbaggers, which was made 30 years ago.

Strategy and tactics

(No, not the magazine…)

One of the most egregious among his many blunders of fact during the debate was when Mr. McCain “corrected” Mr. Obama on a particular set of terms… while being blissfully unaware he was getting it wrong.

From the transcript:


OBAMA: (The soldiers in The Surge) have done a brilliant job, and General Petraeus has done a brilliant job. But understand, that was a tactic designed to contain the damage of the previous four years of mismanagement of this war.

And so John likes — John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong.

You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shiite and Sunni. And you were wrong. And so my question is…

LEHRER: Senator Obama…

OBAMA: … of judgment, of whether or not — of whether or not — if the question is who is best-equipped as the next president to make good decisions about how we use our military, how we make sure that we are prepared and ready for the next conflict, then I think we can take a look at our judgment.

LEHRER: I have got a lot on the plate here…

MCCAIN: I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.


McCain hasn’t been in the active military since 1981. And he was 894th out of 899 in his Annapolis class of 1958. So perhaps it’s understandable why he went astray.

But, here’s what the Army currently says in field manual FM-3, Operations:



2-4. The strategic level is that level at which a nation, often as one of a group of nations, determines national and multinational security objectives and guidance and develops and uses national resources to accomplish them. Strategy is the art and science of developing and employing armed forces and other instruments of national power in a synchronized fashion to secure national or multinational objectives. The National Command Authorities (NCA) translate policy into national strategic military objectives. These national strategic objectives facilitate theater strategic planning. Military strategy, derived from policy, is the basis for all operations (see JP 3-0). (emphasis in original)


So, strategy is the big picture stuff. “We will be victorious in Iraq to foster democracy in the Middle East,” is a strategy. “We will address the threat of the Soviet Union by containing them in a cordon of surrounding allied countries,” is a strategy.

Strategy answers the question, “What do you want?”



2-5. The operational level of war is the level at which campaigns and major operations are conducted and sustained to accomplish strategic objectives within theaters or areas of operations (AOs). It links the tactical employment of forces to strategic objectives. The focus at this level is on operational art—the use of military forces to achieve strategic goals through the design, organization, integration, and conduct of theater strategies, campaigns, major operations, and battles. A campaign is a related series of military operations aimed at accomplishing a strategic or operational objective within a given time and space. A major operation is a series of tactical actions (battles, engagements, strikes) conducted by various combat forces of a single or several services, coordinated in time and place, to accomplish operational, and sometimes strategic objectives in an operational area. These actions are conducted simultaneously or sequentially under a common plan and are controlled by a single commander. Operational art determines when, where, and for what purpose major forces are employed to influence the enemy disposition before combat. It governs the deployment of those forces, their commitment to or withdrawal from battle, and the arrangement of battles and major operations to achieve operational and strategic objectives. Figure 2-1 illustrates the link between the levels of war and the plans and actions of military forces. (emphasis in original)


Tactics, then, answers the question, “How are you going to get what you want?”

From this definition, it’s clear The Surge is a major operation. It’s a series of tactical operations, with the strategic goal of keeping violence in Iraq at a manageable level while the political infrastructure is built by the Iraqis.

Tactically it’s been a great success. Petraeus and his troops have executed very well.

But strategically it’s been a failure. Because instead of taking advantage of the relative calm The Surge has provided them, the Iraqi political leadership has stalled in so many different ways to make Congress’ performance this week the very model of effectiveness. (Thus the ghost of Garrison Keillor: “It could always be worse…”)

But more than that… I’m not alone in noticing this. Jim Fallows quotes “a retired (1999) Army colonel” to the same point. Even more damningly, in some ways, was this post by Jim on McCain’s personal ignorance of strategy vs. tactics:

“There has been no greater contrast between the Obama and McCain campaigns than the tactical-vs-strategic difference, with McCain demonstrating the primacy of short-term tactics and Obama sticking to a more coherent long-term strategy. And McCain’s dismissive comment suggests that he still does not realize this.”

And remember, folks… The military stuff is what McCain thinks he’s good at.

Riddle me this, Batman

Dear Jorge Arbusto:

(two can play this silly-ass cutesy nickname game.)

OK. So, you hoped against hope — given the crap quality of the intel you’ve had from the CIA during your residency so far — that you had the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein pinpointed.

That’s cool, and I appreciate the chutzpah of dumping your war plans to attempt to “decapitate” Iraq.

But, um… Jorge. Amigo. A few things.

* What does it say about your supposed quest for disarming Iraq, if you were willing to throw the command structure over those weapons into chaos, given that you don’t have control over them?

* What does it mean when, presumably, you have someone inside Hussein’s circle both close enough to him to know where he is, and is willing to fink him out to get him killed… But you don’t have anyone willing to say where these much hypothesized weapons are?

Just a thought.

Well, there you have it:

According to Mr. Bush’s speech last night, Iraq is anywhere from one to five years before being capable of launching a strike against us. Which is why it’s so desperately urgent we hit them… um, tomorrow. {cough}

But the most disturbing thing about this whole scenario is how it plays out if you look at it logically.

There’re two axes here: Either Iraq has weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or it doesn’t. And Iraq will either use them, or they won’t.

That means there’re four outcomes, one of which is impossible:

Iraq doesn’t have WMD, and won’t use them. For me, this is the most likely outcome. You can see it all over the place in our own planning, with the devil-may-care attitude we’re showing both about how long this war will last (over quickly enough for Tony Blair to stay PM a day or two, we hope), and the possibilities about retaliation. Then again, that means we’re about to send 300,000 combined troops over to a country looking for weapons that don’t exist. According to some polling data released during today’s Talk of the Nation call-in show, 80% of Americans think Iraq has WMD, and that disarming Iraq is a major criterion for “victory”. (Dear 80% of the US: Iraq is likely already unarmed, and you’re likely to get a massive disappointment.) Either that, or I would look really carfeully at the serial numbers of whatever WMD we “find” — especially after the fiasco of the forgery of the documents purporting to show Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger. Also, this is the scenario most likely to generate the previously predicted 1-14 vote in the Security Council calling for sanctions against the US (and maybe the UK, if they’re still in the game).

Iraq has WMD, and uses them. But if that’s true… then we’re sending 300,000 soldiers good and true to basically be burnt to a crisp so the Administration can then justify massive retaliation. And the Administration is doing this knowingly, with malice aforethought. Oddly, this doesn’t comfort me. (Marshmallows at the Reichstag, anyone?)

Iraq has WMD, but won’t use them. This appears to be the Officially Approved Plan. I hope Mr. Hussein has been properly briefed, and he sticks to the script. But it’s the only way to explain the combination of no obvious contingencies for the use of WMD against our trops, intertwined with no apparent hesitation about the fact that months of concentrated effort through inspection, espionage, satellite flybys, and surreptitious signals listening has turned up… radio chatter with nothing else to back it up. {ooh! aah!} Ruel Marc Gerecht appears to have gotten it right in The Atlantic back in July 2001 — our intelligence agencies appear to have about zero assets in the Near East region. Almost every breakthrough we’ve had appears to have been done by either the Israelis or the Pakistanis, with Our Boys brought in at the last minute for the photo op.

Iraq doesn’t have WMD, but will somehow use them. This is the outcome that’s logically impossible. Unless Mr. Hussein just rang up a massive credit card bill tonight. Or unless he just cut a deal with the North Koreans — who almost certainly do have WMD at this point, which is why the Cowardly Lion treats them with such shyness — to bomb us on his behalf.

This post originally appeared in my Livejournal, on the date shown. It’s not 20/20 hindsight.